Abruptly woken up, I was hesitant to believe that the bus co-pilot was telling the truth when he claimed that we had already arrived in Kalaw. I peered down at my phone, it was 3am. How could we have arrived three hours earlier than anticipated? Arriving late was always expected, but arriving early? That never happened. Carlo, Oscar, and I grabbed our belongings to head off the bus, beyond dazed and confused.
We were the only ones who had gotten off (the rest of the bus was full) and at this early morning hour, it was freezing outside. Still cold wearing a hoodie and long pants, I felt for Carlo and Oscar who were only wearing shorts and a t-shirt. A few minutes’ walk later and we were standing in front of our “pre-booked” guesthouse, in shock that the sign out front read, “All rooms booked tonight.” We had called ahead and informed the staff that we would be arriving in the early morning, just not three hours earlier than expected. We continued to knock but with no answer and a chill spreading over our bodies, we clearly needed to find alternative accommodation and fast.
A man who just so happened to also be standing outside on the side of the road at 3am directed us towards the Golden Lily Guesthouse but I was hesitant. In 2014, the Lonely Planet guidebook had raved about the place however all the other reviews online disagreed. I had never read so many consecutive negative reviews on TripAdvisor. Page after page exclaimed how rude the staff was and how they insisted on guests taking their three-day hike to a town nearby Inle Lake. The accommodation should have been avoided at all costs however freezing and without any other options, we followed the shady man to the guesthouse. I had already arranged the three-day hike with another company so we figured we had nothing to lose.
In the morning I woke up at 9am (as agreed with the staff) to officially check in. At the main counter, I was acquainted with the owner whose attitude was immediately apparent. Instead of needing our passports, she demanded our money and since I had just woken up, I had left it in the room. She walked away from me when I said I’d be right back.
After paying another staff member, Oscar and I went out to find breakfast and explore the town since we only had a day before our hike began. On the far other side of town, we stumbled upon a lively market selling jewelry, drawings, fruits, scarves, vegetables, fish, chicken, and street foods.
On the outskirts of the market we explored small shops and eventually found ourselves at a café where we ordered the usual Myanmar Chai alongside an Indian Puri (two curries with roti).
After eating, we met up with Carlo at A1 Trekking’s Headquarters, the company that I had booked our hike through instead of Golden Lily. Kalaw’s popularity on the tourist map could be accredited mainly to the three-day hike from town to Inle Lake, the second largest lake in the country and yet another popular tourist stop. A wide selection of companies made this trek easy and affordable, it just came down to how much you wanted to spend for the experience you got. I choose A1 since I had read one positive review after the next and although they were slightly more expensive than competitors, I thought it’d be worth it for an unforgettable experience.
Our $60.00 covered a tour guide from the beginning of the trek until the end, all meals home-cooked by a personal chef who followed us on motorbike, two nights stay at local’s homes, a luggage transfer fee for our backpacks to be delivered to our guesthouse in Inle, and lastly, a boat ride fee from the hiking end point to the main town in Inle, Nyaung Shwe. Having completed the hike, it was totally worth paying a bit extra for our experience. Yè Linn, our guide, spoke excellent English, was always willing to explain to us about his country’s culture, constantly made sure we had enough to eat, and was simply a friendly, easy-going guy.
After our three days, we had traveled over 60km, averaging about six hours of hiking a day but this hike was more of a nature walk. The trail was easy with minimal inclines, especially when compared to our intense hike up to Zwegabin only days prior. On our final day, the sickness that Oscar, Mike, and I had experienced in Hpa-An unfortunately caught up with Carlo. He opted to take a motorbike to the finish instead of continuing on his uneasy stomach. In the end, we all made it to the final shores of Inle to take our boat ride across to the town we’d be staying in. The colorful landscape that greeted us along the way was a rainbow including peppers, ginger, avocados, oranges, eggplants, mustard seeds, wheat, garlic, corn, and Chinese lettuce. Both of the homes we stayed at were cozy and supplied four massive blankets for us each to individually huddle under as the temperature dropped to frigid lows during the night.
After the hike had ended, Oscar went on his way alone as he was catching a flight out of Myanmar sooner than me. Carlo and I planned to continue onward traveling together, however, Carlo still felt ill and we weren’t sure how long we would need to stay in the town of Inle as he recovered….